Will the UNHRC be Sri Lanka’s nemesis?

By Lankathilaka

GoSL categorically rejects OHCHR report

Sri Lanka and Pakistan sign MOUs for bilateral cooperation

BASL election a protest vote against the government?

The 46th UN Human Rights Council sessions have begun and they are testing times for Sri Lanka even though the trajectory is not unfamiliar, nor is the path to be traversed.  

Herein lies the rub.  The global north and a large number of human rights organisations and activists are raising the red flag.  They see a dangerous slide back to ‘past patterns of violations being repeated’ and are backing the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which encouraged Sri Lanka’s referral to the International Criminal Court, targeted sanctions on individuals for alleged human rights violations, a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes and a host of other recommendations.  

In her opening speech at the session Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet reiterated what was in her Report.  She regretted Sri Lanka’s repeated failure, even after 12 years since the conflict ended, ‘to pursue genuine truth-seeking or accountability processes’.  She called on the Council to explore new ways to advance various types of accountability at the international level for all parties, and seek redress for victims.’

Sri Lanka has ‘categorically rejected the conclusions and recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report’.  

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardene who addressed both the high- level segment and the interactive dialogue on the Report told the Council that the ‘recommendations and conclusions reflect the preconceived, politicized and prejudicial agenda which certain elements have relentlessly pursued against Sri Lanka. These recommendations are based on ill-founded allegations’, he said. He appealed to the Council to hold the scales even and not go by hearsay, unilateral action or one angled doubtful sources but adhere to its guiding principles.’

In the weeks preceding the sessions, Sri Lanka launched a slew of diplomatic offensives involving the Sri Lankan ambassador to China Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s current representative to the UN Mohan Peirisand also Lord Naseby of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.  They hosted zoom meetings on R2P and sovereignty and how Sri Lanka should reply to the OHCHR report. The intention was to influence the international community and their representatives at the Human Rights Council before which Sri Lanka’s core group plan to present a Resolution based on the OHCHR report. The draft of the Resolution, published by Counterpoint last week, is not as harsh as the Report.  

Sri Lanka has been able to drum up support from about 21 countries mostly from the global south including traditional allies China, Pakistan and Russia, all of whom made their positions clear during the interactive dialogue.  Japan, despite the East Container Terminal (ECT) debacle, remained neutral although it was a different story with India, to whom President Gotabaya Rajapakse reached out personally in writing asking for support at the sessions. Conveying India’s position as permanent representative to the UN Indra Mani Pandey said ‘India remains committed to the aspirations of Tamils from Sri Lanka for equality, justice, peace and dignity.  We call upon Sri Lanka to take necessary steps for addressing such aspirations including through the process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13 Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka’.

Political watchers view India’s statement as a hostile one.  ‘Bringing up the 13th Amendment at a very public and international forum was not very helpful.  In Sri Lanka, reactions to the 13th A have been mixed with people who support it, oppose it and who are neutral about it and the Sri Lankan government is on the horns of a dilemma. Although within government circles the balance could be in favour of the 13th A, they will not want to wear their hearts on their sleeves because it is a sensitive matter among the Sinhalese majority. The Tamil Nadu state election is planned for May this year and flaunting the 13th A will also be an opportunity for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which is on an expansion drive, to get a foothold in the southern state.  The BJPs purported ambitions upset Nepal and Sri Lanka recently after news broke that the party was planning to establish itself in the two neighbouringcountries. Nepal was quick to convey a formal complaint to India. Sri Lanka’s response was more circumspect because the story had stemmed from what the Chief Minister of Tripura Biplap Kumar Deb had said during a public event and not from any official communication.  The Indian government is said to be looking into the matter.

Despite expectations on Sri Lanka’s side for regional solidarity India after all must still be smarting after Sri Lanka reneged on an agreement that was signed in May 2019 to give a 49 per cent share to India and Japan to develop the ECT in the Colombo harbour. Instead, India and Japan have now been offered an 85 per cent share in the West Container Terminal which will cost more to develop and will take longer to yield a return.  The offer is still on the table with a situation reminiscent of that of the Hambantota port where the GoSL offered it to China after India turned down the offer lurking in the background. Not long after the ECT fiasco Sri Lanka rubbed salt in India’s wounds by offering China the opportunity to build three renewable energy plants on the islands of Analativu, Delft and Nagadeepa off the coast of the  Jaffna peninsula.  They were to be handed over to Sri Lanka to manage on completion. The proposal is yet to be approved by Cabinet and could be something the GoSL could leverage for India’s vote at the UN sessions which has not been always forthcoming in the past. There have been seven resolutions on Sri Lanka since the war ended in 2009.

In three of them, India voted in favour and abstained in one, from voting. The other three were adopted without a vote.  

With at least three weeks more to go before the UNHRC sessions end, the Resolution hangs in the balance. The weeks in the interim will allow time for the draft to be revised including the removal of what is no longer relevant such as the point on Covid-19 burials which has now become redundant after the GoSL gave its approval for burials to take place. The move will score points for Sri Lanka among countries of the Organization of Islamic cooperation which during the sessions, called on the government to allow burials.  

The government’s decision to approve burials of those who die of Covid-19 coincided with the visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, the first head of state to come to Sri Lanka this year.

Even before Prime Minister Khan landed in Sri Lanka the issue of Covid burials was making local and international headlines after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse shot his mouth in Parliament when he said the government has approved the burial of Covid dead.The government later tried to cover up the gaffe saying it had to wait for the decision of the expert committee which was looking into the matter but not before the world had welcomed the GoSL’s decision to allow burials.  PM Khan also welcomed the government’s move.

With the matter still in limbo at the time the Prime Minister arrived in Sri Lanka, it was inevitable that he will bring up the issue at the scheduled meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapakse and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.  Sources said that the visiting Prime Minister had been told by them that a political decision had already been made on the matter and that the government was waiting for the expert committee’s report.  PM Khan also had unscheduled meetings with Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and a group of 15 Muslim parliamentarians who earlier had been told by the government that they could not meet him due to security reasons.

Scenes of protestors denouncing the government’s decision to prevent them from meeting the Pakistani PM went viral on social media. PM Khan had reportedly told the parliamentarians, who had brought the Covid burial issue to his attention, to be patient and that the matter will be resolved.  The decision by the GoSL to allow the burial of Covid dead, which has been welcomed widely and is viewed optimistically as a step heralding other reform, will be formalized with the issue of a gazette notification to this effect.

Apart from smoothing ruffled feathers over the Covid issue, Prime Minister Khan’s visit is largely being seen as one which promoted bilateral cooperation between the two countries as opposed to foreign policy. Weeks before the Prime Minister’s arrival news spread that he will be addressing the Sri Lankan parliament but it did not happen.

The GoSL said the cancellation was due to Covid health regulations but the real reason is said to be the government’s fear that the PM will use the opportunity to bring up Kashmir, which would have heightened tensions between Sri Lanka and India even more.  In terms of cooperation, several MOUs on education, tourism including Buddhist pilgrimages, technology and investment were signed during the Prime Minister’s two-day stay in the country.    

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 concluded that former President Maithripala Sirisena is criminally liable for acts and omissions connected with the attacks and recommended that the Attorney General consider bringing criminal proceedings against the former president under suitable provisions of the Penal Code.

Others who have been implicated are Director of the State Intelligence Services Nilantha Jayawardene about whom the COI concluded that ‘ on a balance of probability he did convey the intelligence received by him to President Sirisena but did not attach the weight he should have attached to it’. The Commission went on to conclude that ‘the weight of the Indian intelligence was diluted’ by him.

The COI also found IGP Pujith Jayasundara and SDIG Nandana Munasinghe criminally liable.  

Although the Commission faulted former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe for being lax towards Islamic extremism no action against him has been recommended.  

The report, which was tabled in Parliament last week, also concluded that the BBS should be declared a banned organization.

The COI was set up by Mr Sirisena five months after the attacks which killed 279 people and injured more than 500 after near concurrent explosions in three Colombo hotels and three churches. Some 440 witnesses gave evidence before the six-member COI which was made up of a Supreme Court Judge, a Court of Appeal Judge a High Court judge and three others.

Besides, Saliya Peiris, the new president-elect of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) had the spotlight turned on him suddenly after the brother of a peer was attacked by police at the Peliyagoda police station.  The attack reportedly took place because the victim had been mistaken for his brother, who is a lawyer and who had gone to the police station on a previous occasion to see some of his clients who were being held there. Peiris was quick to condemn the attack.  ‘News of a young final year law student being subjected to police brutality at Peliyagoda is appalling. There should be zero tolerance for police brutality. The perpetrators must be dealt with and prosecuted, he said.  

Peiris who will be inducted as President at the end of this month will be taking over at a time the Bar is facing challenges. Expectations are running high. ‘The vote for him is a protest vote’, said an insider.  ‘Since this government took over, there has been an assault on the law and members of the judiciary are being intimidated’. Peiris’s election pledges were to raise the standards of the Bar, to preserve and protect the rule of law and to ensure the welfare of members of the Bar.

Peiris, who is a President’s Counsel trounced his opponent Presidents Counsel Kuvera De Zoysa at an election last Wednesday to win with a convincing majority of 2386 votes.  He polled 5093 votes and De Zoysa polled 2707 votes.(SW)  

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